Doing Genealogy: Finding That Glorious, Elusive Condition Called “Balance”


When I was a young man, my sports hero was a man named Robert Mathias. He won the decathlon in the 1948 Olympics and again in 1952.

Mathias ran the 100 meters in 10.9 seconds. The winner covered the distance in 10.4 seconds, a half-second faster than Mathias. In the 400 meters, Mathias’ time of 50.2 was far short of the 45.0 time of the specialized runner. Mathias high jumped 6 feet 2 3/4 inches, some 6 inches less than the man who won the high jump competition for those who had entered just that one event. His javelin sailed 194 feet 3 inches, far short of the 242 feet throw of the man who spent his entire effort in that event.

Bob Mathias wasn’t the best at any one specialized event, but he did each event well enough that when all his scores were added together, his overall score made him the decathlon champion.

Life is much like a decathlon. To fulfill our own potential and to be of service to others requires that we take part in many events. If we attempt to set records in one event, we may fall far short in another. And if we measure our efforts against those of a specialist, we can feel inadequate and even guilty that we don’t do better.

Somewhere between the two extremes of being too busy and not doing anything is that glorious, yet elusive, condition called balance. It’s by approaching the many aspects of our life with a sense of balance that we can be champions in life’s great decathlon.

When we place our perceived genealogical duties into the busy mix of life, we sometimes feel that it is the one event which could break our back. I think we feel that way because we view genealogy as a specialized event rather than one essential event in a decathlon effort. We imagine that to do this work in an acceptable manner we must have a book of remembrance thirty-seven inches thick, census records on every shelf, a permanent seat in the genealogical library, and family group sheets on every table top.

Some specialists are indeed this involved, but we don’t all need to be that involved to make an acceptable genealogical effort.

The short quiz on page 20 will reveal whether or not you are striking a good balance. Take a few minutes to work on it now.

The “Genealogy Event” Quiz

□ True □ False

1. I love genealogy.

□ True □ False

2. I’ve been to the temple to receive my temple blessings, or else doing so is among my highest priorities.

□ True □ False

3. I’m sealed to my spouse, my children, and my parents, or else forming such eternal links are among my highest priorities.

□ True □ False

4. I have family home evening each week with my spouse and children, or else I would if I had a spouse and children at home.

□ True □ False

5. I have in our family book of remembrance a record of my ancestors back at least four generations. I (or my family) have submitted the qualifying names on these records for temple work and also for inclusion in the Ancestral File.

□ True □ False

6a. [To be answered by those whose families have submitted many ancestral names for temple work:] Most of my genealogy has already been done, but if there is something else I can do, and if somebody will tell me what it is, I’d be willing to do it.

□ True □ False

b. [To be answered by those so new to the Church that none or only a few of their ancestral family names have been submitted to the temple:] During the next year I will submit the names of several of my deceased ancestors for temple work.

□ True □ False

7. I am writing or recording on a tape recorder my personal history.

□ True □ False

8. I want to know all I can about my family heritage.

□ True □ False

9. I understand and believe the doctrines relating to salvation for the dead.

□ True □ False

10. My heart is turned to my fathers. I love my ancestors; I know that they still live, and I desire to be part of an eternal family with them.

Let’s look at your answers and see how you did.

1. I love genealogy.

If you answered true, you are doing fine. If you answered false, it may be because you didn’t understand the meaning of the word genealogy.

Genealogy is not family group record forms, pedigree charts, microfilms, name abbreviations, and technical regulations. These are only tools. Genealogy is the study of one’s family, the study of our ancestors—their birth, their childhood, their dreams, their marriages, their occupations, their children, their deaths. And because these things in the past all have an impact on the present, in a very real sense, genealogy is a study of one’s self.

I sometimes wonder what my situation would be if my great-grandfather Durrant had not been John Durrant but instead had been John Someone-else. That would mean that I would be one-eighth different than I am.

If great-grandfather John had made different choices in his life than he did, my life would also have been different. When the missionaries came to England more than a hundred years ago, he believed them. If he had not done so, he would probably have stayed in England and I’d be an Englishman.

Is it any wonder, then, that I want to know more about him and my other ancestors? The more I can learn of them, the more I come to know of myself.

As you come to know your ancestors, you’ll form a deep love for them. You’ll desire to ensure that the temple ordinances are performed for them. Genealogy is the means which will enable you to do that.

If you answered false, would you like to go back and change the answer to true? Doing so will bring you a little surge of joy.

2. I’ve been to the temple to receive my blessings, or desire to do so.

You answered “true,” didn’t you?

The most fundamental of all temple and genealogical responsibilities is to attend the temple for yourself. Receiving our temple blessings is the heart of the gospel. It is the foundation upon which we stand to reach our dearest spiritual blessings. From there we can go on to make such blessings available to our deceased ancestors.

If you have received your temple blessings, return often to bring these blessings to others and to remind yourself again of the covenants you have made. If you haven’t yet been to the temple and are qualified to do so, make yourself worthy and come to the temple.

3. I’m sealed to my family, or desire to be.

Some years ago I conducted a study on the subject of family home evening and its influence upon children. I located a number of families who had seldom, if ever, held family home evening and I asked them if they would conduct a family home evening each week for a period of three months.

I remember one family’s experience. When I visited the home to make my original request, the father put his smoking pipe aside. A can of beer was open near the side of his chair. We spoke of several subjects, then I made the request. He accepted, saying that he would faithfully conduct a family home evening each week.

Winter had nearly turned to spring before I saw the family again. I was greeted by an almost overwhelming welcome. When I asked, “Did you have a home evening every week for the past three months as you said you would?” The father looked at me intently and said, “I’m not sure. Most weeks we did, but there was one week we aren’t sure if what we did was a family home evening or not.”

The mother then said, “I think we could even count what we did that week.”

I said, “Tell me what you did and we’ll see.”

The father replied, “That’s the week we went to the temple to be sealed together forever as a family.”

I was caught off-guard by this unexpected response, and I could hardly speak because of emotion. I softly replied, “Yes, I believe we could count that.”

I asked the father, “What happened to cause this mighty change?”

His simple reply was, “Each week I’d call my family together and we’d have family home evening. I saw the children sitting there close to me and their mother. We all felt so good and so happy. I decided it was time we started changing things. We talked about going to the temple so that we could be together forever. We talked to our home teachers and then to the bishop. After a time the bishop felt we were worthy to go to the temple.”

For some families, the great blessings of the temple must for now remain a fond hope. It will not always be so. Someday those who desire such blessings will receive them.

4. I have family home evening each week, or would if I had a spouse and children at home.

If you answered “false,” you are ignoring a most basic responsibility of building an eternal family. This is something the busiest of the busy can do. It is the cornerstone of a balanced gospel life.

At the dedication of the Oakland Temple, President Harold B. Lee made these meaningful remarks:

“President Joseph F. Smith and his counselors promised Church members that if they would gather their children around them once a week and instruct them in the gospel, those children in such homes would not go astray. …

“Can you believe that when parents have passed beyond the veil that then is the only time when parents should have their hearts turned to their children and children to their parents? … I’d have you consider seriously whether or not that binding with your family will be secure if you have waited until you’ve passed beyond the veil before your hearts then yearn for your children whom you have neglected to help along the way. Maybe it is time for us to think of turning the hearts of parents to children now while living in order that, after they are gone to the beyond, there might be that bond between parents and children which will last beyond death. I think it is a very real principle, and we should consider it.”

Such weekly experiences can be the heart of continued family experiences that will cause bonds in this life which when coupled with temple sealings will carry on beyond the veil.

If you answered “false” to this one, go back and change it to true and then do it.

5. I have a record of my ancestors back at least four generations and have submitted the names for temple work.

If you answered “false,” it could be because sometimes finding the records of four complete generations is an almost impossible task.

If you have earnestly tried but are stopped on a difficult line, you can answer true. You’ve satisfied the spirit of the assignment. So often the involvement in such an effort is as important as the information which may or may not have been found.

A few years ago we were asked as families to verify these four generation records and to submit one copy for the family to the Ancestral File. Many of us received these four generations from relatives who had searched out the information before we even became involved. It is a good exercise to study these records carefully and to go back and search the original records. This causes you to become better acquainted with the ancestors on these records, while at the same time determining the accuracy of the data.

A copy of these same records and others are to be kept in the family book of remembrance, used along with pedigree charts, family group sheets, and personal and family histories. All these can be used to teach the family about their ancestors.

6a. Most of my genealogy is done.

If you answered “true,” you did so honestly. But you are probably mistaken.

It is true that many ancestral lines have been traced back as far as existing records will allow. Yet it would be a rare person who could not find at least a few lines that could be extended further back. You can, with the use of a balanced amount of your time, become involved in this exciting quest.

The course of action to take is simple. Among the living descendants of your great-grandparents are probably a number who would like to be more involved in genealogical work. Usually you already know of some relatives who have a genealogical interest. Call them on the phone, write them, or go visit them. Then, two or more of you could schedule an ancestral family meeting.

At the meeting, find out who emerges as a natural leader, then appoint him or her chairman. Let that person, which might be you, lead out in formulating a proposal to determine where the family research is, where you want it to be, and how to get it there. This will be the family genealogical plan.

As you get together with relatives, you will discover that some family members will be better at genealogical research than others. Some can search records. Some can write a family history. Some can type pedigree charts, family group records, and histories. Some can be fund raisers. Some can be photographers. Some can do artwork. Some could contact other family members and organize family meetings and reunions. Organize so that all family talent can be used, everyone feels that they are contributing, and nobody feels swamped. If no family member is qualified to do research in difficult areas of the world where records require careful analysis, your family organization can hire a professional genealogist to do the work.

Before or after an ancestral family meeting, you could talk or write to your brothers and sisters and your parents, if they are living, and tell them of the genealogical plan. Each could discuss these matters in the next family home evening.

By now you may be sufficiently enthused that you want to organize or join several ancestral family organizations. Don’t do it. You will be biting off more than you can chew. Your active involvement in one or two will be enough to keep your gospel life balanced. To expand the family effort, encourage your brother to become involved in an ancestral family organization on another of your family lines. Your sister could work with yet another line.

Your genealogy is not all done. It awaits your efforts. One contact with a relative will start the forward motion. If you are a descendant of John Durrant, call me. If you aren’t, then write to the Family Registry, 50 East North Temple Street, Salt Lake City, Utah 84150, USA. Tell them who your great-grandfather is. They can perhaps tell you who to contact. Thousands of families are registered there.

You may be a capable genealogist already who has the time to do the research by yourself. If so, help your relatives by bringing them aboard.

6b. I will submit several names this next year for temple work.

Recently a young woman who attends college said:

“I joined the Church two years ago in the East. I didn’t do much about my genealogy at first. Then I became aware that I should get involved. I realized that because I was the only member of the Church in my family, my grandparents and other ancestors who died without their temple blessings were counting on me to help them.

“Last year, although it was the busiest year of my life, I was able to find and submit to the temple the names of twelve of my direct-line ancestors. Right now I’ve got about that many more to submit.”

Many converts like this young woman have family trees that are ready to harvest. If each adult convert of last year had submitted twelve ancestral names for temple work, the total number would have been almost two and one-half million names—nearly double the total number of names submitted by all Church members during that period.

7. I am writing my personal history.

Some say, “I’m not a writer. I don’t even write letters. How could I ever write a personal history?” Or, “Nothing real exciting ever happened to me. No one would ever want to read it, besides, I’m so busy I hardly have time to live a personal history, let alone write one.”

Writing can be difficult and life is busy, but don’t try to tell me your life hasn’t been exciting. I won’t accept that. We simple folks may not have found our way into the public limelight, but we are always thinking and feeling and hoping and dreaming. And those things and our struggles and our private victories, even though small, make our life stories of captivating interest to all those who love us.

Recently I asked a friend, “Have you written your personal history?”

He said, “Not yet, but let me tell you what I’m going to do.” He then went on and told me about all of his material and about his grandiose plan.

I said, “You’ll never do it.”

Shocked, he asked, “Why not?”

I replied, “You’re thinking too big. Just get in and write a little heart-felt story from what you can recall. People don’t want volumes, they just want pages. Get busy and write one experience at a time.”

A birth certificate proves that you were born. A personal history proves that you lived—you really lived.

If you don’t feel you can write your history, get a tape recorder, turn it on, and have someone interview you. You could easily respond to such questions as, “What was school like when you were a boy?” “How did you decide to be a plumber?” “How did you come to know that there is a God?”

If you answered “false” to question 7, change your answer to “true.” Then resolve to do it.

8. I want to know all I can about my family heritage.

Of course you answered “true” to this one. Knowing about the lives of our ancestors is of interest to each of us.

Often you can get histories of ancestors from relatives. Reading such histories is the single best way to spark an interest in genealogy. Some ancestors, on the other hand, are not yet fully discovered. You can help research and write histories of these people.

One of my grandfathers was largely unknown. Using all the information I could find about him from relatives, I wrote a short history of his life. In that history I included a story that Uncle Jim had told me:

“As a small child I remember there was a dirt road in front of our house. Much of the time this road was muddy. Each Sunday we children would all get ready to go to church. Father wouldn’t go, but he would lead us all to the side of the muddy road. Then, one at a time, he would put us up on his shoulders and carry us across the mud to the dry path on the other side.”

My grandfather’s obituary reads, “He was neither prominent in the Church nor in the community.” When I read this, I put the paper down and said softly, “Grandfather, you may not have been prominent in the community or the Church, but you sure are prominent in my heart.”

As I wrote my grandfather’s history, I had a very strange feeling. I could feel him near me, and in my heart I heard his voice: “My dear grandson, I hope there is something to make you proud of me, because I am deeply proud of you.” Feeling his presence so near to me was an experience I shall never forget.

9. I understand and believe the doctrines relating to salvation for the dead.

For members of the Church the pursuit of genealogy is much more than a hobby. Of genealogy and temple work, Elder Boyd K. Packer has said:

“Every Latter-day Saint is responsible for this work. Without this work, the saving ordinances of the gospel would apply to so few who have ever lived that the gospel could not be claimed to be true.

“Probably no point of doctrine sets this Church apart from the other claimants as this one does. Save for it, we would, with all of the other churches, have to accept the clarity with which the New Testament declares baptism to be essential and then admit that most of the human family could never have it.” (The Holy Temple, Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1980, p. 20.)

There are many scriptures which relate to salvation for the dead. Two that are key to the subject are Joseph Smith’s vision on the celestial kingdom (D&C 137) and Joseph F. Smith’s vision of the gospel being preached in the spirit world (D&C 138). Read these two revelations silently or aloud as a family. As we work on our genealogy and attend the temple, our spirituality and our knowledge of eternal principles increases. And as this happens, we have increased desires to live worthy of the great blessings of the gospel.

10. My heart is turned to my fathers.

One realistic goal we all can achieve is to be a “genealogist of the heart.” We may not all become experts immediately at finding dates and filling out forms with exactness. But we can be and should be experts in loving our ancestors.

We can attend family reunions. We can find and read family histories. We can talk to older relatives about the family. We can visit ancestral cemeteries. We can go on vacations to places where our grandparents once lived. We can give time and perhaps money to further the family genealogical effort. We can teach our family heritage to our children. We can have regular family home evenings and build family ties which will endure forever.

The bishop, the Relief Society president, the mayor, the teacher, the housewife, the doctor, the welder can all be genealogists of the heart. We can then with normal diligence do well in the “genealogy event,” which is one of the many events of the great gospel-centered decathlon.

[photos] Photography by Wes Taylor

George D. Durrant is a director in the Priesthood Genealogy Department. He is the father of eight and serves as bishop of the Third Ward, Salt Lake Mount Olympus Stake.